Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Love

“A total delight,” reads Josephine Hart’s blurb on the cover of Alain de Botton’s first novel, “On Love.” On the contrary, I would say “On Love” is a total downer. I loved it, but you would have to derive pleasure from other peoples’ pain to call this book a delight.

The narrator, also named Alain, plunges into this sordid tale of romance, dashed dreams, agonizing heartbreak and attempted suicide, but resurfaces wiser in the end. He gives the reader intriguing philosophy lessons and astute observations on love. This is a self-help book, philosophy book and tragic love story all in one.  

The narrator’s anguish was real to me. "On Love" stings the heart and stimulates the mind. Crushing emotions gained from reading this book chilled me so much, at times I had to stop reading. Even while thinking about this book, I had to stop walking, stop eating, stop throwing punches in my kickboxing class, just be still and let everything register.

“On Love” reminded me of "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov. Alain’s obsession’s name is Chloe, similar to Lo. But Nabokov doesn’t shy away from sex -- or rape, I should say, while Alain de Botton’s sex scenes are like clumsily performed magic tricks. Chloe leaves Alain for another man, just like in Lolita, and she also reads mindless magazines like Cosmopolitan, reminiscent of Lolita and her twelve-year-old-girl reading material. "Lolita" is my favorite book, so perhaps it is unfair to compare anything to such a work of genius.

I would have liked this book more if Alain had some close, trustworthy friends, preferably friends on a lower socio-economic scale, since this book needs more of those. I thought of George Orwell and his unpretentious writing in contrast to the privileged characters and their petty disagreements in “On Love.”

Alain’s friends flit in and out of the book, but no one sticks in the reader’s mind. With a few more scenes, a bit more action, and a few more minor but memorable characters, I think this book could have crossed class barriers and offered real, grittier representations of Paris and London. This book could have been set on the moon, given the lack of human contact and imaginable landscapes. Characters travel back and forth from Paris to London, yet writing about places seems to be very low on the author’s list of priorities. Writing about people is higher on the list, but writing about emotion is tops.

Friends are like lifeboats. We can keep them anchored on the shore when we feel like rotting on our isolated islands, and going insane with self-pity. Then we can find our friends when we feel like rejoining civilization. Friends can say careless things when we’re recovering from the insanity that comes after a massive heartbreak. “Maybe it’s for the best,” and, “Time will heal all wounds,” offer little comfort to someone who is traumatized. Even Hamlet had friends, which goes to show that even the most insane, most obsessed, most indecisive, and most introverted characters must stay connected to others.

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